Singlehandedly playing 37 characters, Whitehorse actor Brian Fidler has found himself fully committed to the Guild’s upcoming production of Fully Committed.
Hopefully he won’t become fully committed as a result.
Fidler plays Sam, a telephone-reservation clerk at an upscale New York restaurant, who must manage calls from the city’s elite, as they demand, connive and cajole their way into obtaining seats at the exclusive eatery.
The restaurant is, of course, fully committed—the restaurant’s ostentatious term for being fully booked.
Fidler’s multiple personalities take form as the other side of the telephone conversations.
Finding himself forced to cover the duties of two absent coworkers, Sam spends the play effectively imprisoned in a web of ringing phones.
The besieged reservation clerk doesn’t enjoy the finery he commands. Housed in a dingy basement, he is far removed from the glitz of his employer. A direct line to the domineering head cook—located a few frantic steps away on a wall phone—is almost all that connects Sam to the opulent world above him.
Fidler draws upon a range of techniques to help audiences differentiate his vast palate of characters, but particular emphasis is placed upon voice.
Ranging from gravelly Brooklynese to southern drawl, the play’s vocal demands are particularly challenging.
Before each performance, Fidler prepares with an intense 30- to 40-minute voice warmup.
“It sounds kind of stupid; there’s a lot of ‘eeeeee,’ and rubbing my sinuses and making these high pitched weasel sounds,” said Fidler.
Most one-man shows involve the actor breaking through the fourth wall to interact with the audience—in effect, compensating for a lack of co-stars by turning the spectators themselves into cast members.
In Fully Committed, the fourth wall is solid, further increasing Fidler’s hour-and-a-half zone of isolation. From the opening line to curtain, it’s just him and a pile of ringing phones.
Like a thespian Charles Lindbergh, Fidler pulls off the entire play singlehandledly, resulting in the ultimate in high-stakes acting.
“When it’s flying and when it’s working, it’s going to be wonderful,” said Fidler.
But also like Lindbergh, he carries no parachute.
“If I dry up up there, I’m going to be shitting my pants—I don’t know what I’d do … I’m flying without a net,” he said.
The intensity of rehearsals, and the sheer volume of material needed to be crammed into the actor’s brain allows Fidler little respite from the play’s pageant of archetypes and eccentrics. The cast of Fully Committed cannot simply part ways in the Guild Hall parking lot.
The offstage camaraderie and “inside jokes” typical of any cast continues to exist for Fully Committed, said Fidler, even if it exists in the form of a “constantly buzzing” internal monologue.
“They’re working their way in there; they’re definitely in my dreams,” said Fidler.
Eighty minutes worth of machine-gun dialogue must be internalized, as well as a schizophrenic command of onstage chemistry.
The golden performance rule of “always listen to your fellow cast members” still applies, said Fidler.
“I predict a lousy cast party,” said director David MacKay.
Sam must often deal with irate customers, countering their aggravation with calm. Fidler is forced to leap back and forth between the two opposing emotions.
“I’ve got to turn on a dime; I’ve got to be mad at me, and then I’m me, defending myself against me,”
“There’s a lot of technical issues … ‘Oh yeah, that’s my cue, and I just gave myself my cue and now I’ve got to answer my cue,” said MacKay.
Naturally, managing the play’s endless cavalcade of idiosyncratic characters requires Zen-like concentration.
In early rehearsals, Fidler could be derailed by a single twitter of laughter from the stage manager or director.
“I would think, ‘Oh, they liked that,’ and then my brain would go somewhere else—and then I’d be fucked,” said Fidler.
The novelties of a one-man acting troupe aside, the real strength of Fully Committed ultimately lies in its structure, said MacKay.
“We want to get our laughs from the story as opposed to being zany for an hour and a half,” said MacKay.
“The effect is: ‘that was funny—and he did it all by himself,’ instead of, ‘that guy did 37 funny voices,’” he said.
Based in New York, the play’s characters range from nearly every nationality and ethnicity known to civilization.
“New York, you can have anyone on the planet there, because it’s such a cosmopolitan city,” said MacKay.
As the play developed, “finding” each character became one of the greatest challenges. At times, Fidler and MacKay found themselves combing the depths of Fidler’s cerebrum to “audition” potential matches.
“He’s a small town guy in a big city, and he’s in a business that doesn’t take kindly to a midwestern, ‘aw shucks’ demeanour,” said Fidler.
Sam absorbs every verbal onslaught, never failing to take his telephonic tormentors at a human value. As he butts up against the dog-eat-dog world of the Big Apple, Sam gradually begins to find his own teeth.
“But he doesn’t sell his soul; that’s the key,” said MacKay.
The setting of a low-level service industry job was a natural for playwright Becky Mode, a former waitress and coat-check girl. The play originates from conversations with the restaurant’s reservationist, Mark Setlock, who often performed humourous impersonations of the patrons he managed. Setlock would go on to play Sam in the show’s 1999 premiere.
To anyone who has ever hoisted a drink tray or schlepped plates for a living, Fidler’s numerous characterizations are all too familiar.
The slow-talker: a customer who only aggravates an already frantic pace by taking seeming eons to speak.
The grumpy senior citizen: a caller who complains that their senior’s discount was not properly honoured.
The temperature perfectionist: the scores of customers who judge their meals to be too hot or too cold.
In New York, the play has been an acclaimed favourite among the city’s food service class, Mode has said in interviews.
Tim Zagat, founder of the renowned Zagat Surveys of restaurants, has called particular attention to the play’s “dead-on” characterization of the maitre d.
Fully Committed opens February 5th at the Guild Hall. Advance tickets are available at Well-Read Books.
Contact Tristin Hopper at email@example.com